Down Under Delights: What's New in Australia

Melbourne and regional Victoria serve up high-caliber food and wine choices for groups

It is rumored that Anthony Bourdain once said, "I'd rather eat in Melbourne than Paris." The southern Australian city hosts the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which attracts 300,000 guests, including renowned chefs and winemakers. In recent years, Melbourne has become an acclaimed culinary destination, with restaurants by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and actor and restaurateur Robert De Niro.

And it's not just the city center that is attractive to foodies and other visitors. Meeting and incentive planners looking at the destination can organize excursions to Yarra Valley and the Dandenongs, which is famously known as southern Australia's wine region.

The potential program options in the city and its environs make Melbourne and regional Victoria a potent one-two punch for groups that savor food and wine experiences accompanied by a dose of adventure and a side of golf. 

This is particularly appealing since, according to Sandra Chipchase, CEO of the Melbourne Convention & Visitors Bureau, one-quarter of all meetings delegates from the United States bring their friends, spouses, or families with them to experience Australia's second-largest city as well as regional Victoria. 

Terror and Terroir 
In the lush Yarra Valley, about an hour from Melbourne, lies an assortment of outstanding wineries with opportunities for gourmet food-and-wine tastings, leisurely meals, plus outdoor adventures and nature experiences. 

A good place to start is Trees Adventure, a combination zip line and challenge course in Glen Harrow Park. Get attendees' adrenaline pumping by having participants crawl through barrels strung from wires, balance across tightropes, and swing through rare oak and sequoia trees that are the legacy of the late-1800s English settler and horticulturalist, Thomas Cole.  

Trees Adventure has four courses of varying difficulty. One of two advanced courses starts with a 33-foot-high climb up an indented wooden pole and ends with a 330-foot-long zip line ride as a reward for living up to the task. 

After a couple of hours of excitement, hungry meeting-goers can walk over to the Belgrave Locomotive Workshop for a one-of-a-kind three-course lunch alongside a working steam locomotive. Part of the Puffing Billy Railway‚ considered one of the best-preserved steam railways in the world. Tthe venue is a kitschy but classy working garage with a long, elegantly set table.
 
The Puffing Billy, which came to life in 1900, travels 15 miles through forests, fern gullies, and rolling farmlands and features onboard wine-and-dine experiences for groups of up to 88, in four enclosed, saloon-style carriages. A charter of Puffing Billy handles up to 250. 

Another Round 
If golf is on your attendees' minds, the Sebel Heritage Yarra Valley has the only Jack Nicklaus Signature course in Australia‚ the par-72 St. John Course‚in addition to a second 18-hole course, the Heritage Golf and Country Club, and a pro shop, as well as a conference center for 400 attendees. Situated in the heart of Yarra Valley, the property has 102 rooms, as well as a spa and tennis, volleyball, and swimming facilities. 

The 69-room Balgownie Estate Vineyard Resort and Spa is another accommodation option, offering lushly furnished, oversized rooms. Its restaurant, Rae's, with a private dining room for up to 40, overlooks fields of chardonnay and pinot noir plantings and has become one of the area's most popular establishments. 

Amid 19 acres of landscaped gardens and vineyards, and views of nearby mountains, wine tastings and pairings with Australian bush foods at the Wild Cattle Creek Estate's Rustic Charm restaurant allow guests to unwind. The relatively young vineyard -- tours are available -- is also known for raising a French breed of cattle highly regarded for its beef. Wild Cattle Creek can host up to 160, and boutique accommodations are provided by the Wallace Historic Homestead, which features rustic, turn-of-the-century-style appointments.

Elsewhere in the valley, at the 270-acre Rochford winery and events venue, groups can enjoy cool-climate pinot noir tastings while watching skydiving tandems from the Melbourne Skydive Centre land on the property's field. The signature group space at Rochford is the Pinot Gallery, an elongated room accessible via a spiral staircase and adorned with paintings‚ ideal for conference, lunch, or cocktail functions.

Back In the City
Anchoring the Southbank waterfront district of the city‚ directly across from the two-year-old Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC)‚ is Crown, a sprawling three-hotel, Vegas-style casino and entertainment complex with 1,600 guest rooms and a long roster of group spaces. 

Designed to be a destination attraction for Melbourne and a headquarters for MCEC groups, Crown features Gordon Ramsay's gourmet eatery, maze, at the 658-room, ultra-contemporary Crown Metropol. The property also features a sky lounge with panoramic city views. The 465-room Crown Promenade Hotel also has contemporary guest quarters, along with a spa and The Deck, equipped with a heated indoor infinity pool, outdoor leisure space, and a fitness center. And a stone's throw from both hotels is the Crown Entertainment Complex, boasting Australia's largest 24-hour casino, among other enticements. 

One of the newer group-friendly venues in Melbourne is Polly Woodside, a circa-1885 coal and cargo ship that originated in Belfast and is now anchored at Melbourne Docks, next to the MCEC. The wooden tall ship, which sailed nearly one million miles in its working life, gives groups up to 150 an unusual venue for meals or cocktail functions. Food and beverage for Polly Woodside events is handled by Peter Rowland Catering.

Another up-and-coming venue is Mural Hall, within the historic Myer department store in central Melbourne. It is a rectangular space that evokes classic European ballrooms with its large murals, balconies, three stunning chandeliers, parquet floor, and wall panels in the Streamline Moderne style, a late version of Art Deco. Painstakingly restored and just opened, Mural Hall can host 550 guests for meals, afternoon tea, or all-day functions.